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Meta faces UK lawsuit over surveillance business model

The High Court case against Meta could set a precedent for millions of UK users to object to their personal data being collected and processed for advertising purposes

Human rights campaigner Tanya O’Carroll has launched a lawsuit against Meta in the UK High Court, alleging the technology conglomerate is continuing to use her personal data for targeted advertising on its Facebook service despite her objections.

Under the UK’s data protection rules, people have the “right to object” to the collection and processing of their personal data for direct marketing purposes, including any associated profiling.

O’Carroll’s lawsuit, filed on 16 November 2022, claims that despite exercising her legal right to object, Meta is continuing to collect, process and use her information for these purposes.

Rather than seeking monetary compensation, however, O’Carroll is seeking a yes or no decision on whether she can opt out of being profiled for advertising purposes.

“This case is really about us all being able to connect with social media on our own terms, and without having to essentially accept that we should be subjected to hugely invasive tracking surveillance profiling just to be able to access social media,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“With this case, I’m really using this right that’s long been there on the law books, but has until now not been exercised, which is to simply say ‘I object’, and if we are successful in that then everybody will have that right.”

“This case is about us being able to connect with social media on our own terms, and without having to be subjected to hugely invasive tracking surveillance profiling”
Tanya O’Carroll, Foxglove and Amnesty Tech

If successful, O’Carroll’s litigation could set a precedent for people who object to Meta’s surveillance-based business model, by allowing them to more easily challenge the firm’s ability to track and profile them.

Meta’s third-quarter earnings, released in October 2022, show the firm’s advertising revenue came in at $27.2bn. This is in line with what the company said it expects when it announced second-quarter earnings.

Responding to Computer Weekly’s request for comment, a Meta spokesperson said: “Protecting the privacy and security of people’s data is fundamental to how our business works. That’s why we’ve invested heavily in features like Privacy Check-up and Ads Preferences that provide more transparency and controls for people to understand and manage their privacy preferences.”

O’Carroll, a senior fellow at law firm Foxglove and co-founder of Amnesty Tech, is being represented by digital rights agency AWO.

“Meta is straining to concoct legal arguments to deny our client even has this right. But Tanya’s claim is straightforward; it will hopefully breathe life back into the rights we are all guaranteed under the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation],” said Ravi Naik, a solicitor and legal director at AWO.

In a blog post about the lawsuit, AWO added that Meta’s surveillance mechanisms, which harvest billions of people’s data to profile them for targeted advertising, have been shown to fuel discrimination and harm children.

“Facebook has allowed advertisers, for example, to exclude people from seeing ads for housing, credit or employment, on the basis of profiling by race, gender or age, as well as interests or groups that can serve as proxies for those categories,” it said. “Facebook has also allowed ads for alcohol, pharmaceuticals and extreme weight loss to be targeted at children as young as 13.”

The lawsuit itself claims Meta’s surveillance-based advertising model is characterised by a “significant asymmetry of information” between O’Carroll and the company about the types of personal data it collects and processes, and that “the full extent and nature of that processing is outside the claimant’s knowledge”.

It further states that, in response to legal correspondence from O’Carroll, lawyers acting on behalf of Meta denied that the relevant section of the UK’s data protection laws had any bearing on the company’s ability to deliver targeted advertisements through Facebook, “and therefore denied that the claimant had a right to object… to the processing”.

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